$90M for voting machines, mail-in ballots signed into law

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Gov. Tom Wolf signed legislation Thursday that advocates say makes the most significant changes to modernize Pennsylvania election laws in 80 years and authorizes the state to borrow of up to $90 million to help counties buy new voting machines ahead of next year's presidential election.

Wolf, a Democrat, said the legislation takes the nation's least voter-friendly election laws and puts them in line with states that have the highest voter turnout.

The bill was negotiated privately by Wolf and leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature. A draft first appeared last week . It passed the House and Senate on Tuesday and had the support of good-government groups.

Here is a look at its highlights:

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VOTER REGISTRATION

Under the legislation, voters can register up to 15 days before the election. Among states, Pennsylvania's long-standing 30-day deadline is the furthest out, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Wolf had initially pushed for election-day voter registration, which some states allow.

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MAIL-IN BALLOTS

The legislation allows any voter to mail in a ballot for any reason, adding Pennsylvania to a group of 31 states that already do so, according to the NCSL. Previously, Pennsylvania restricted mail-in ballots to "absentee" voters who meet a narrow set of reasons laid out in the Constitution, including people who can't vote in person because of job-related travel, religious observance, illness or physical disability.

Applications must be made available on paper or electronically and can be received up to 50 days before an election, unless a county decides it wants to receive them earlier. The deadline to receive them is when polls close, at 8 p.m. on election days.

A registered voter can ask to be placed on a permanent mail-in voting list file. Wolf had initially pushed to open polling places for early in-person voting.

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ABSENTEE BALLOTS

With a lawsuit pending over Pennsylvania's deadlines for counties to receive absentee ballots, the bill adjusts those deadlines to 8 p.m. on election days. Currently, the deadline is 5 p.m. on the Friday before the election, the nation's earliest.

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STRAIGHT PARTY-TICKET OPTION

The legislation eliminating the ballot option that allows voters to push one button that selects a single political party's candidate in each contest. That provision was a top priority of Republican lawmakers and prompted opposition from many Democratic lawmakers.

That leaves just seven states with the option, although voters in one state, Michigan, restored it by ballot referendum last year after the state's Republican-controlled government eliminated it.

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VOTING MACHINES

The bill authorizes the state to borrow up to $90 million to help counties to afford voting machines.

Wolf last year began pressing counties to buy voting machines with an auditable paper backup, contending it would bolster Pennsylvania's election security after warnings by federal authorities that Russian hackers had targeted states during 2016's election.

Legislative budget analysts say debt service on a 10-year bond would be about $105 million, while the total cost to counties to replace their voting systems could be about $148 million.

Counties can apply to the state for the aid, and are eligible to receive 60% of the costs of buying or leasing a new voting system. Counties could receive more than that, or less, depending on how much they submit in expenses.

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CENSUS COUNT

The legislation authorizes $4 million in spending by the state to bolster federal census efforts, to help ensure a complete and accurate 2020 census count in Pennsylvania.

The government takes a headcount every 10 years to allocate seats in Congress and billions in federal dollars for such things as transportation projects and education. Wolf's office says Pennsylvania would lose almost $2,100 a year in federal aid for each person who isn't counted.

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